29 April 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 6-0 Newcastle

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), Reading (h), Everton (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), Wigan (h), Swansea (a), Tottenham (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Aston Villa (h), Fulham (h), Stoke (a), QPR (a), Sunderland (h), Manchester United (a), Norwich (h), Arsenal (a), Manchester City (a), West Brom (h), Swansea (h), Wigan (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), Aston Villa (a), West Ham (h), Reading (a), Chelsea (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

5-2 Norwich (a), 2-2 Everton (a), 3-2 West Ham (a), 4-0 Fulham (h), 1-3 Stoke (a), 3-0 QPR (a), 3-0 Sunderland (h), 2-2 Arsenal (a), 4-0 Wigan (a), 3-2 Tottenham (h), and 6-0 Newcastle (a).

8 wins, 2 draws, and 1 loss, and an average of 3.27 goals scored per game, when Liverpool strikes in the first quarter of the match. If Liverpool score before 23 minutes are off the clock, Liverpool almost always score more, and Liverpool almost always get a decent result. As usual, Stoke remain something of an exception which proves the rule.

Incidentally, eight of those matches (5W-2D-1L) came away from Anfield.

It helps when it's one of those matches where Liverpool are surprisingly ruthless in front of goal. Between them, Henderson, Agger, and Borini took four shots. And scored four goals. Liverpool didn't put a single second half shot off-target; three goals, two on-target shots saved (one onto the woodwork), and three shots blocked.

Liverpool's 56.25% shooting accuracy is its second best total of the season, only the second match where Liverpool put more than 50% of its shots on goal. Of course, the one better match, where Liverpool's shooting accuracy was 61.11%, was the 1-3 loss at Southampton, which somewhat ruins the argument. Regardless, here's a (rather large, which is why it isn't embedded) table of Liverpool's shots per match this season for comparison. In 14 wins, Liverpool's average shooting accuracy is 35.15%. It's 29.90% in both the 12 draws and the nine losses.

Admittedly, Newcastle's defense made it easier for Liverpool to get those shots. As mentioned in the match review, three of Liverpool's goals came from a blown offside trap, while one started from a giveaway in Newcastle's half when Coutinho and Henderson hassled Ben Arfa off the ball. Newcastle only made nine interceptions, vastly below average for a Liverpool opponent this season (compare that to Chelsea's performance last week, or Reading's the week before), and almost the same number of fouls (14) as successful tackles (15). Debuchy's sending off was no surprise, but that Tiote or someone else didn't walk earlier was.

Meanwhile, Lucas' defense was outstanding. His nine tackles were a high for a Liverpool player this season, and the most he's won in a single game since 2008-09 (and probably his career, although that's as far back as EPL Index's stats go). He also completed 90% of his passes, his highest percentage since the 4-0 win at Wigan, and only Agger made more interceptions on Saturday. It was a vast improvement, in all regards, on his output against Chelsea, Reading, West Ham, and Villa, and a good sign that slowly but surely he's returning to his pre-injury form.

Special mention goes out to Henderson as well, full of running and incredibly efficient when on the left; with Perch and Tiote unable or unwilling to hold their position and Debuchy looking to get forward, Newcastle gave him space and he willingly took it, playing a crucial role in three of the first four goals. All while responsible for marking Debuchy, who subsequently had the second-worst passing accuracy of Newcastle's outfield starters and created zero chances. Then he was dominant on the ball in central midfield after Gerrard went off, a spell highlighted by his outstanding free kick goal. He averaged almost two passes per minute during the 20 minutes he played in the middle, at a time where Liverpool were happy to mercifully kill the game.

Finally, there were just four matches where Liverpool have had less possession this season: 2-2 against City, 2-2 at Everton, 2-2 at Arsenal, and 3-2 against Tottenham. Those, along with the two victories against Wigan, are the only matches where Liverpool has had less than 50% possession. But because of Liverpool's early goal(s), and the way Liverpool – especially Lucas, but team-wide – defended, possession was almost immaterial.

I'm tempted to ascribe some of the lack of possession to Suarez's absence, with Liverpool ostensibly more direct – most evident in the second, fourth, and fifth goals – but, overall, Saturday was incredibly similar to last month's 4-0 win at Wigan. Who, probably not coincidentally, is one of Newcastle's direct challengers in the upcoming relegation scramble.

27 April 2013

Liverpool 6-0 Newcastle

Agger 3'
Henderson 17' 76'
Sturridge 54' 60'
Borini 74'

From Monday:
Sturridge was very, very good yesterday, but Liverpool will need that sort of performance with even more output, plus vastly improved performances from Downing, Coutinho, and Henderson. The Uruguayan is a hard man to kill, and an even harder man to replace.

Sturridge = two goals and an assist
Henderson = two goals and an assist
Downing = two assists
Coutinho = an assist, and the hub of so much of Liverpool's excellent work in attack.

Oh, and Borini made his return, scoring within 90 seconds of coming off the bench.

Well then.

It's incredibly difficult, but let's not get carried away with how well Liverpool played – more specifically, how ruthlessly Liverpool attacked – in Suarez's absence. Newcastle played a crucial role in Liverpool's rout, but it was still more than reassuring to see the team come out shouting blood and thunder, then go straight for the jugular.

It was the most goals Liverpool have scored in a league match since beating Hull City 6-1 in September 2009. A six-goal margin of victory equals Liverpool's biggest in a league away match, and a 0-6 loss is Newcastle's worst home defeat since 1925.

This was a different Liverpool in Suarez's absence. Liverpool had to spread the wealth without its talisman, and did so excellently. The side was much more direct in attack, and was less focused on keeping possession; Newcastle actually had more of the ball than Liverpool today. Coutinho thrived by playing in his preferred #10 position – neither superlatives nor statistics do that performance justice – while Sturridge exploited the acres of space given by Newcastle's back-line.

Of course, one swallow doesn't make a summer. We'll (unfortunately) have nine more games to see if Liverpool continue in this manner, and it continues to reap similar rewards. And as we always seem to hear when Liverpool stroll to victory, the opposition helped by not being very good today.

Once again, a comprehensive win starts with an early goal. Today started with Agger's third of the season, staying forward after Newcastle only half-cleared a corner, beating the offside trap to loft a header over Rob Elliot. And before Newcastle could breathe, Liverpool had a second: Reina's long kick deftly controlled by Sturridge, laid off to Coutinho, who found the striker with a wonderful through ball, subsequently put on a plate for Henderson, benefiting from his burst to join the attack with a tap into an empty net.

However, Newcastle finally pulled itself together, finishing the half with a scrappy 20 minutes where they could have easily pulled one back. Somehow, last season's villain James Perch missed a free header from Haidara's excellent cross. Karma. Still, Liverpool remain vulnerable to crosses into the box, but Newcastle couldn't take advantage.

Pardew's halftime changes – Ben Arfa for Perch, Gouffran for Jonas – continued Newcastle's momentum, but without reward. Then, countering quickly, came Liverpool's third. And once Sturridge got the third – Coutinho stealing possession from Ben Arfa after Henderson pressed him back into Newcastle's half, charging forward, and somehow threading the ball through two defenders – the match was over. The final 35 minutes were just piling dirt on the corpse.

Sturridge got his second on another blown offside trap: Gerrard's ball over the top meeting Henderson's burst, selflessly returning the favor for Sturridge's earlier assist rather than taking the more difficult shot. Borini came on for the captain in the 73rd – Gerrard's first missed minutes in the league this season – then scored in the 74th, smartly pulling into space to slot home Downing's cutback. Two minutes later, Henderson punished Debuchy's sending off for a second yellow by crossing a free kick directly into the net, one of those "balls into a dangerous area" that's going into the net whether it finds a Liverpool head or no head at all.

From there, merciful cruise control, the only real threat at extending the lead from Coutinho's wicked shot saved onto the crossbar, swiftly followed by Shelvey and Suso replacing the Brazilian and Sturridge.

Three of Liverpool's goals came from broken high-line offside traps. One came from Liverpool pressure in the opposition half, running at the defense before it could settle. Newcastle could do less about the final two: Borini wonderfully pulled into space and struck quickly, then Henderson's dangerous free kick eluded everyone. Liverpool did well, but, yes, Liverpool had help.

The next three matches, and subsequent six to start next season, will not be this easy. But this style of play seemed to suit Liverpool well, from back to front; the only concern was Liverpool's lack of possession inviting pressure for 20-30 minutes. Better teams could well be able to punish that lack of control. Still, it's a minor complaint when Liverpool's attack is that good.

Of course, Liverpool's next match is a Merseyside Derby, where the style of play regardless of personnel is more akin to mud wrestling.

26 April 2013

Liverpool at Newcastle 04.27.13

12:30pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 11.04.12
2-0 Newcastle (a) 04.01.12
3-1 Liverpool (h) 12.30.11
3-0 Liverpool (h) 05.01.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Chelsea (h); 0-0 Reading (a); 0-0 West Ham (h)
Newcastle: 1-1 West Brom (a); 0-3 Sunderland (h); 1-1 Benfica (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 23; Gerrard 9; Sturridge 5; Downing, Henderson 3; Agger, Coutinho, Enrique, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Johnson, Şahin 1
Newcastle: Ba 13; Cisse 8; Cabaye 6; Ben Arfa, Sissoko 3; Gouffran 2; Sh Ameobi, Jonas, Marveaux, Perch, Santon 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Downing Coutinho Henderson

Well, Suarez's suspension (which he isn't appealing) takes a bit of the fun out of the lineup guessing game. It also takes 40% of Liverpool's goals and 13% of Liverpool's assists this season out of the lineup for the next ten games. And it's now up to Brendan Rodgers to figure out how to cope with this irritating situation.

Borini's back in training, and Sterling may be used before the end of the campaign after making just one appearance in the last two months, but tomorrow's front four seems as certain as the other seven positions. It'll be Sturridge, Downing, Henderson, and Coutinho. The only question is whether Henderson or Coutinho is the number 10, with the other ostensibly playing on the left.

I think we'll get the version which started at Reading: Coutinho in the hole and Henderson out wide. Liverpool will need added creativity in the center of the park with Suarez absent, which Coutinho can provide. And Newcastle are strong on the flank, whether Ben Arfa or Gouffran starts on the right; Henderson's a better option to help nullify that potential threat.

Otherwise, same old, same old. Reina in goal; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, and Enrique in defense; and Gerrard and Lucas in central midfield. With news that Gerrard might need shoulder surgery this summer (everybody wants to be like Joe Allen), there were questions as to why he just doesn't get it over with now. But Rodgers has been incredibly unwilling to sit Gerrard during better times; even with little to play for, he'll want his captain out there that much more with Suarez absent.

While Liverpool frets over Suarez's future, 16th-placed Newcastle is trying to cope with an overwhelming injury list. Cisse and Tiote should be available despite respective rib and hamstring problems, but Marveaux, Krul, Santon, Coloccini, and Ryan Taylor are all out. If the first two play, I suspect Newcastle's XI will be: Rob Elliot; Debuchy, Steven Taylor, Yanga-Mbiwa, Haidara; Tiote, Cabaye; Gouffran, Sissoko, Jonas; Cisse. Ben Arfa could start in place of Gouffran; Jonas could play left-back allowing both Gouffran and Ben Arfa to start. If Cisse's unavailable, it'll be Gouffran or Shola Ameobi up front. If Tiote's unavailable, it'll be Perch or Anita in midfield.

Six points outside of the relegation zone with four games to play and level on points with 14th-placed Sunderland and 15th-placed Stoke, Newcastle is *probably* safe. This season has been the definition of "regression to the mean" – vastly overachieving last campaign, vastly underachieving in this campaign. The loss of Demba Ba, still Newcastle's top scorer this season, hasn't helped, but Newcastle are in almost the exact same position in the table as they were on January 1. The difference is those aforementioned injuries; they were incredibly lucky last season, and have been incredibly unlucky this season.

That said, Newcastle remain a dangerous side, one capable of causing Liverpool problems: speedy on the flanks and good crossers of the ball. Only four teams attempt more crosses per game, no team attempts more long balls per game. Cabaye is outstanding on set plays, Cisse can conjure goals from nothing if you give him the space, and Sissoko has proven especially dangerous on rampaging counter-attacks.

Liverpool may wish the season over, may have little and less to play for with Europe very unlikely, aggrieved over its talisman's absence. But Liverpool can't show up thinking those thoughts. We need to see the side finish as strong as possible, if only to gain the confidence that it can start next season in a similar manner.

22 April 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 2-2 Chelsea

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), Reading (h), Everton (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), Wigan (h), Swansea (a), Tottenham (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Aston Villa (h), Fulham (h), Stoke (a), QPR (a), Sunderland (h), Manchester United (a), Norwich (h), Arsenal (a), Manchester City (a), West Brom (h), Swansea (h), Wigan (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), Aston Villa (a), West Ham (h), Reading (a)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Not for the first time this season, it was a tale a two halves.

Liverpool were light years better in the second half, especially in attacking third passing, shots on target, and possession. The take-ons and crosses stats also seem important, more evidence of Liverpool's increased attacking potency. Conversely, Chelsea were much worse, mostly because Liverpool were able to control the tenor and tempo – aside from the mad move which led to Chelsea's penalty and the subsequent ten minutes on tilt.

To reinforce the tale of two halves narrative, compare each side's "Player Influence," via StatsZone.

The extra attacking player handed Liverpool the initiative in the second half. The fullbacks and Gerrard were much more involved, Liverpool were more coherent in the final third without Coutinho, Henderson, and Downing repeatedly giving the ball away, and Chelsea's defenders couldn't focus solely on Suarez. Benitez's tactics aided Liverpool in the final 15 minutes, removing Hazard, Mata, and Oscar for more defensive players, which was part of the reason that Liverpool took more shots from the 85th minute on than in the entire first half.

But the 4-2-4 formation isn't always the easy solution to Liverpool's problems, and I wasn't surprised by Liverpool's starting XI. Liverpool were marginally better than their opponents, with Chelsea blunted, from Hazard's penalty until Benitez's substitutions, but still struggled to test Chelsea for a good 20 minutes in the second half. Liverpool woefully underperformed in the same formation against Southampton, who use similar tactics to Chelsea, and Liverpool had to shift from 4-2-4 to 4-2-3-1 to prompt the comeback against Tottenham at Anfield last month. There is no catch-all panacea, but at least Liverpool under Rodgers have increasing options.

Meanwhile, Suarez was responsible for 63% of Liverpool's shots on target. He put five of his six on target, scoring once, fittingly registering both Liverpool's first and last shots on target. Sturridge had one on target, his goal, while Gerrard had two, both saved. The other 12 efforts were either off-target or blocked. Keep that in mind when Suarez serves his inevitable ban, hopefully for no more than the last four games of this season. Sturridge was very, very good yesterday, but Liverpool will need that sort of performance with even more output, plus vastly improved performances from Downing, Coutinho, and Henderson. The Uruguayan is a hard man to kill, and an even harder man to replace.

It doesn't seem coincidental that both of Liverpool's goals came from quick, one-touch passing moves down the flank, moves that started in Liverpool's own half. That's been the case for more than a few goals this season, including many of Liverpool's best. And it doesn't seem coincidental that both of Chelsea's came from set plays: one a free header directly from a corner, the second a penalty won during a corner. But we're all already well aware where Liverpool need to improve during the offseason.

There was one interesting, reassuring defensive stat. Yesterday was the first time this season that all of Liverpool's attempted tackles were successful tackles. Lucas made five; Enrique four; Johnson, Agger, and Suarez two; and Carragher, Gerrard, and Henderson one. Compare that to last week's match, where just 11 of Liverpool's 18 attempted tackles were successful, and just two of Lucas' seven. Liverpool also committed just eight fouls (not included the handball), compared to Chelsea's 11, including just three in its own half. Which, at least, is a good way to limit those dangerous set plays that Liverpool have an all-too-nasty habit of conceding from.

21 April 2013

Liverpool 2-2 Chelsea

Oscar 26'
Sturridge 52'
Hazard 57' (pen)
Suarez 90+7'

The Luis Suarez show. And not in the good way. Well, some in the good way – an assist for Liverpool's first equalizer, and a goal for the second equalizer with the last touch of the game – but much, much more in the bad way.

Because it sure looks like Luis Suarez bit a guy. He also conceded a penalty for Chelsea's second, an understandable if slightly harsh call, but more importantly, he bit a guy. For the second time in his career. Words fail me.

The man just cannot avoid the headlines. We've been spoiled because he's been in the headlines for the right reasons this season, but we've been here before and it's not fun.

Also, a football game happened. A game where Liverpool were very disappointing and deserved to be behind after the first half, but merited the draw with its second half performance. Please remember that when we spend the next week talking about Suarez's extracurricular vampiric activities.

Liverpool were decent, if cagey, in the first five to ten minutes, culminating in an excellent Johnson chance toe-poked wide. But from there, Chelsea grew in stature, thanks as much to Liverpool's disconnect in attack as their own improvement. And in the 26th minute, Liverpool conceded the exact goal they conceded in the reverse fixture. In November, John Terry eluded Agger and Carragher to slam in a near-post header in the 21st minute. Today, Oscar eluded Agger and Carragher – mostly Agger – to slam in a near-post header in the 26th minute. Set plays remain a soul-killing, heart-stopping experience.

And Liverpool were lucky not to concede three minutes later when Reina spilled Luiz's fierce effort but regrouped just before the ball crossed the line. The Reds didn't register a first shot on target until the 42nd minute, from – who else – Suarez, saved at the near post, quickly followed by a second on target just before the interval from a similar angle on the opposite side of the pitch.

I compared Benitez's Chelsea to Pochettino's Southampton in the match preview, which turned out depressingly accurate, at least in the first half. With both Henderson and Coutinho supremely wasteful, Liverpool's final third pass accuracy was 55.6% in the opening 45 minutes. The only time Liverpool were less accurate in the final third over a full match was against Pochettino's Southampton.

But it was a very different Liverpool which retook the field after halftime, and Sturridge replacing Coutinho made all of the difference. Within a minute, Sturridge created a wonderful chance for Gerrard, remarkably saved by an outstretched leg from Cech. A minute later, Sturridge spun away from a defender and lashed a rocket off the post. And five minutes after that, Sturridge notched the equalizer, a wonderful move from back to front: Reina to Carragher, over the top to Downing, flicked directly into the path of Suarez, who sumptuously crossed first-time to an open Sturridge at the far post, tapped past Cech from six yards out before the keeper could slide over. Always play players against their former club...

But the joyous reprieve lasted just five minutes. Mata's clear dive won a deep free kick (and got Lucas booked), which resulted in a Chelsea corner. And from that corner, Suarez handled; Kevin Friend immediately pointed to the spot. I'm in the minority, but – surprise, surprise – I thought it was a harsh decision. Admittedly, arms above head will almost always get called, but that Suarez's arms were above his head seemed an involuntary reaction to being pulled off-balance by Torres grabbing his kit. It was literally the only positive thing Torres did all match. Regardless, Hazard stepped to the spot after a couple of minutes of arguing and coolly sent Reina the wrong way.

Unsurprisingly, the concession killed any Liverpool momentum. Back to square one despite all the good that came in the 12 minutes before. It's probably not coincidental that an aggrieved Suarez bit Ivanovic soon after the penalty concession; we've long known how frustrated the Uruguayan can get when things don't go his way. Which is not an excuse. It was disgusting, and I could probably use even harsher language to condemn it, but children might be reading this. Suarez deserves to be punished by the FA and by Liverpool. And Liverpool are supremely lucky that Friend didn't see it. Although maybe they aren't; Jermain Defoe bit Mascherano a few years back but escaped punishment because the referee booked him. I doubt anyone in the media will mention that this week.

From there, with Liverpool still stuttering, Benitez looked to kill the game: Benayoun, Moses, and Lampard replaced the more attacking Hazard, Oscar, and Mata (memories...), while Liverpool's response was to send on Shelvey for Downing. It was another positive change from Rodgers, leading to Liverpool's chances in the last ten minutes, but Shelvey wasted two – one a sitter – while Henderson's fired wide from Suarez's lay-off and then Suarez blasted a shot straight down Cech's throat. It seemed that Liverpool would again fail to find the needed last minute goal, which has happened all too often whether needing a winner or an equalizing, yet another marginally undeserved loss to a side ahead of them in the table.

But in the last act of the game, Liverpool scored, with roles reversed from the first equalizer. Sturridge's wonderful right-sided cross connected with Suarez's run to the near post between Ivanovic and Luiz, with Cech unable to keep out the close-range header. Because of course him. We've rarely had such a clear dichotomy of the good Suarez and bad Suarez as today. Also, let's not lose sight of Sturridge's role in both goals. He was absolutely outstanding in his 45 minutes. Suarez will get the headlines, good and bad and more bad, but Sturridge was the difference. He'll have to keep that up for the rest of the season with an inevitable Suarez suspension looming.

The struggles from the starting XI in the first half disappointed, especially Coutinho, Henderson, and Downing, but the way Liverpool and Rodgers responded in the second half was reassuring. We haven't seen enough meaningful in-game changes from the manager or the team this season. We also haven't seen enough of Liverpool responding to adversity. And we haven't seen enough of "good Liverpool" against teams ahead of them in the table.

Those are all good signs. Pity that they'll all be forgotten and ignored because of Suarez's moment of indefensible stupidity.

20 April 2013

Liverpool v Chelsea 04.21.13

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (a) 11.11.12
4-1 Liverpool (h) 05.08.12
1-2 Chelsea (n; FA Cup) 05.05.12
2-0 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 11.29.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Reading (a); 0-0 West Ham (h); 2-1 Villa (a)
Chelsea: 3-0 Fulham (a); 1-2 City (a); 2-3 Rubin Kazan (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 22; Gerrard 9; Sturridge 4; Downing, Henderson 3; Agger, Coutinho, Enrique, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Johnson, Şahin 1
Chelsea: Lampard 12; Mata 10; Hazard 8; Torres 7; Ivanovic 5; Ramires, Terry 4; Ba, Cahill, Luiz 2; Cole, Marin, Moses, Oscar, Sturridge 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Downing Coutinho Henderson

I am not looking forward to this.

I am not looking forward to Rafa Benitez's return to Anfield at the same time that Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool is painfully stuttering its way to the end of the season, the first time Liverpool have hosted a former manager since Kenny Dalglish came with Newcastle in January 1998. (Edit: It has since been pointed out to me that Roy Hodgson actually managed Liverpool, and then returned with West Brom. We regret the error, but still maintain he doesn't count.) It's gonna be awkward and it's gonna be weird.

I am not looking forward to a Liverpool that hasn't scored in 210 minutes of football facing a side that's given up only 33 league goals all season. Only Manchester City has allowed fewer.

I am not looking forward to facing a side that's also scored the second-most goals in the league this season, behind only Manchester United. And having struggled against the likes of Benteke, Lukaku, etc., I am not looking forward to Liverpool having to defend a side that's scored the most headed goals in the league.

Are there any consolations?

Well, despite the disappointments in the last two matches, Liverpool are a much better side than they were the last time they faced Chelsea. And Liverpool matched Chelsea almost step for step in the reverse fixture in November, rightfully earning a point at Stamford Bridge, rarely looking like conceding aside from the set play that John Terry scored from.

Rodgers' Liverpool lined up in a 3-5-1-1 at Stamford Bridge five months ago. I'd be very, very surprised if that were the case tomorrow. Liverpool's personnel will also be very different; five of the 11 starters in November either assuredly or probably won't play – Allen, Jones, Şahin, Sterling, and Wisdom.

As usual, it's a case of Sturridge or Henderson; I'd be surprised if Downing were left out so Sturridge could start on the right again, although it's definitely a possibility. I am a firm believer in playing players against their former club, but Henderson seems more likely to start than the ex-Chelsea striker. And if that's the case, it's a question of who plays on the left and who plays as the #10. Unlike against Reading, Henderson makes more sense centrally, able to press Mikel/Lampard/Ramires when Chelsea are in possession, with Coutinho given more freedom on the left because of Chelsea's wingers' frequent inability to track back.

It's sort of a Goldilocks solution. Playing two strikers appears to leave Liverpool too open against dangerous opposition, especially given Chelsea's preferred formation, while Coutinho's ability to unlock Chelsea's defense as the attacking midfielder would be hampered by Mikel's close attention.

Despite the initial troubles, mostly caused by Chelsea fans' stubborn idiocy, Benitez's Chelsea have become a very Benitez side.

The best comparison, other than to Benitez's former sides, is Pochettino's Southampton. A team that beat Liverpool 3-1, albeit on its own ground. They were well-organized; disciplined; fluid, flexible, and fast in attack; and put frequent pressure on the ball when out of possession. Chelsea will play a similar style, but with more talented players.

Rafa's lineups have never been the easiest to predict, made harder by the massive amount of matches Chelsea have played in the last few weeks, but chances are it looks something like: Cech; Azpilicueta and Bertrand at fullback; two from Ivanovic, Luiz, and Terry at center-back; two from Lampard, Mikel, and Ramires in midfield; Hazard, Mata, and either Oscar and Moses in the attacking line of three; and either Torres or Ba up front. Ashley Cole, Marin, and Cahill are all doubtful through injury, while Romeu remains out for the season.

This game would have made me much less nervous last season. Under Dalglish, Liverpool struggled against lesser quality opposition, against the West Hams and Readings (yes, I know neither were in the division but bear with me), yet almost always found form against the sides ahead of them in the table. This season, the win over Tottenham at Anfield remains Liverpool's only victory against one of the 1st-6th placed sides: two losses to United, two draws against City, a loss and draw against Arsenal, a win and loss against Tottenham, and draws at Everton and Chelsea. Liverpool played to its full potential in two, maybe three, of those matches, while the side had moments in one or two others.

Liverpool will need to play to its full potential to take all three points tomorrow, to continue to be defensively solid, but to also find the goal-scoring form which has eluded them in the last two matches.

16 April 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 Reading

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), Reading (h), Everton (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), Wigan (h), Swansea (a), Tottenham (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Aston Villa (h), Fulham (h), Stoke (a), QPR (a), Sunderland (h), Manchester United (a), Norwich (h), Arsenal (a), Manchester City (a), West Brom (h), Swansea (h), Wigan (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), Aston Villa (a), West Ham (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Tolstoy had the measure of it. Happy results are all alike. Every unhappy result is unhappy in its own way.

Sure, like last week when comparing Liverpool's 0-0 against West Ham to November's 0-0 against Stoke, there are some similarities between Sunday's match and Liverpool's three other scoreless draws. But on the whole, the last two results, while similar in scoreline, played out fairly differently.

Last week, Liverpool were disjointed in attack, with Suarez often stifled and with West Ham tackling everything that moved when Liverpool actually managed to not give the ball away in the final third.

On Saturday, Liverpool played one of its more cohesive away games this season, combining well from back to front despite a lower pass accuracy, creating far more chances, taking far more shots, and putting more of those shots on target. Liverpool looked much more fluent with Sturridge ostensibly on the right this week, provided better balance by Henderson on the left and Coutinho and Suarez's consistent movement through the middle. Liverpool were as potent after switching to 4-2-4, taking almost as many shots in the final 30 minutes as in the first 60 without resorting to more speculative efforts, but the mounting frustration was tangible, a clear feeling of "how the hell haven't we scored yet?" Yes, again. Meanwhile, Reading attacked somewhat similarly to West Ham, reliant on long balls and crosses, but made fewer than half the number of tackles, and took fewer shots and created fewer chances than West Ham despite more possession. On Saturday, Liverpool simply ran into a brick wall of a goalkeeper.

Liverpool have now played 210 consecutive minutes without scoring, have taken 55 shots (20 on target) and created 38 chances without scoring. The former is certainly the team's longest drought in the league this season, and it's safe to assume the subsequent statistics are as well.

Liverpool took more shots in the final five minutes of both halves than Reading took in total, and took the same number of shots in the last 10 minutes of the match as Reading did in the entire match. And put more of those shots on target as well. Fat lot of good it did them, although, again, almost all of the credit for that goes to Alex McCarthy.

Despite the decent overall play, Liverpool's pass accuracy against Reading was its fourth lowest of the season; only Everton (a), Tottenham (h), and Southampton (a) saw worse. Incidentally, two of those three worse performances have come in the last five matches.

It's easy to point to fatigue for Liverpool's woes in the last few matches. And I will, thank you, at least in part.

In the 28 matches through Liverpool's 4-0 win at Wigan, Liverpool averaged 526 attempted passes per match, completing 85.0% of them. It's a small sample size, but in the five matches since – Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), Villa (a), West Ham (h), and Reading (a) – Liverpool have averaged 494 attempted passes per match, completing 78.8% of them. Tottenham are currently 5th, but Southampton are 11th, West Ham 12th, Villa 17th, and Reading 20th. It's not as if Liverpool have faced a murderer's row over the last month.

It's similar for final third passes. Liverpool are averaging around 10 fewer final third passes per match in the last five games, completing 64.3% of them compared to 73.7% in the first 28 games. Fewer and less accurate final third passes are still leading to a similar amount of shots, but Liverpool has averaged 1.2 goals per game over the last five matches; it was 1.9 during the first 28, many of those games played without either Coutinho or Sturridge. Liverpool have averaged 1.6 points per game in last five matches, which is better than the 1.5 points per game average over the previous 28 matches, but remember, that includes the first five matches where Liverpool took just two points in total.

To use one player as an example. Yesterday, Liverpool attempted 19 tackles – again, below its season average – but only 11 were successful tackles. Lucas was responsible for five of the eight unsuccessful tackles, winning just two of his seven. And he also had his least accurate passing display of the season, completing just 74%; his average for the season was 88% going into Saturday's match.

Suarez was much improved compared to his performance against West Ham; it's certainly wasn't evident in scoring output, while he created fewer chances than usual as well, but putting five of his seven shots on target is an outstanding rate for him. But Gerrard and Johnson, among others, were almost as disappointing as Lucas. Liverpool's stars, the players that make Liverpool tick, simply haven't been at their best lately.

It has been a long season, a long season made even longer by a lack of squad depth, especially before the January transfer window. A long season nearing another disappointing end. It's sad to say, but a drop in form shouldn't be all that surprising.

13 April 2013

Liverpool 0-0 Reading

Déjà vu all over again. Déjà vu from last week, and déjà vu from last season.

If you thought last week's match was insane, that it was unfathomable Liverpool could fail to score, you hadn't seen anything yet.

Discussion starts and ends with Alex McCarthy, who was making his first start since a shoulder injury in November. He hadn't played for more than five months and then comes up with a performance like that. I can't remember the last time I've seen a better goalkeeping performance. And we saw a lot of them last season.

It was the same scoreline as when Liverpool traveled to West Ham six days ago, but today was very, very last season. We got the Liverpool Hat-Trick: a goal ruled out for offside, what looked to be a certain goal cleared off the line, and a shot caroming off the post – which all also happened at West Ham. All that was lacking was a missed penalty to fully complete the time machine trip to 2011-12. And more importantly, we got a goalkeeper on cheat mode, in even better form than Ruddy, Hart, De Gea, Al Habsi, or any of the others who somehow stood on their head against Dalglish's side.

An early goal, and this ends just like Swansea, Wigan, Norwich, et al ended. Of course, we said similar after West Ham. Four, three, two months ago, and this probably ends just like Swansea, Wigan, Norwich et al ended. Liverpool players, especially the crucial players – Suarez, Gerrard, Johnson more than others – are clearly fatigued, overextended and struggling to finish the season in any semblance of form. It's been that way since the reassuring 3-2 win comeback win over Tottenham at least, and arguably going back a game before when Wigan was thoroughly overwhelmed.

Spare a thought for Brendan Rodgers, although I'm certain you aren't inclined to do so. The tactical changes to the starting XI made Liverpool a better side, more cohesive in attack, with far fewer final-third foibles compared to last Sunday. Sturridge ostensibly started on the right, where he was against West Ham, but spent little time there. Henderson returned to a left-sided berth, shifting between the flanks and midfield, while Coutinho played behind Suarez. All four rotated fairly effectively. Reading's lack of attacking threat meant Johnson and Enrique had acres of space to roam freely without the fear of being exposed. Liverpool simply could not put the damned ball in the damned net, and it wasn't for lack of chances, both clear-cut and speculative.

Yes, yet again, Rodgers wasn't able to change things during the match, handcuffed by the squad's quality and options on the bench. Yes, it may have been better to remove Lucas rather than Henderson on the hour mark, still switching to the ostensibly more potent 4-2-4 but with a more dynamic midfield and with Lucas both barely needed and already booked. But after that change, what else was Rodgers going to do? Bring on the increasingly disappointing Shelvey? The barely seen Suso or Assaidi. This squad, even after January's improvements, remains markedly shallow. This is news to no one.

Rodgers didn't force McCarthy into 10 saves – a high for an opposition goalkeeper this season – and didn't fail to take just one of the countless chances Liverpool created. Had McCarthy not played out of his mind, had Gunter not cleared Suarez's 14th minute chip off the line, had Coutinho stayed onside in the 49th minute, had Suarez's 78th minute free kick been 6 inches to the left rather than off the post, had Liverpool converted just one – just one! – of its 28 shots, Rodgers looks an awful lot more clever.

I'll repeat: 28 shots, 11 on target. Five on target from Suarez, two from Sturridge and Gerrard, one from Coutinho and Downing. Only Lucas and Reina failed to take at least one shot; Agger, Lucas, and Reina were the only starters to fail to create a chance. Few of McCarthy's saves were routine; they weren't easily grabbed shots straight down his throat. And saves on Coutinho, Suarez (twice), Sturridge, and Gerrard were simply remarkable.

This is the first time that Liverpool have had back-to-back 0-0s in the league since December 2008, against both Fulham and West Ham at Anfield. The first time Liverpool have failed to score in consecutive league matches since losing to Stoke and Tottenham at the start of last season. Failing to score for the last 210 minutes, it's Liverpool's longest goalless streak since the beginning of last season as well and it's also the first away match where Liverpool failed to score in the last 11.

What makes this even more infuriating is that no matter how well McCarthy played, it changes nothing for Reading. A single point is almost as worthless as none. Had Reading actually attempted to attack more than sporadically, Liverpool may well have penetrated McCarthy's forcefield. But they didn't – with one good chance created more by Liverpool than Reading and well-saved by Reina – and they still remain planted to the foot of the table, eight points from safety. Congratulations. You're still going down. Cowards. And now both Liverpool and Reading fans go home unhappy. Some more unhappy than others.

Despite the anger, this changes next to nothing in the greater scheme of things, except Liverpool are marginally more likely to finish behind Everton for the second consecutive season. Which is a massive blow to Liverpudlian pride, but not much else. Liverpool already weren't qualifying for Europe, not even the Europa League, thanks to failings earlier in the campaign. Which, of course, doesn't make today any less frustrating.

This season cannot end soon enough. And it's the fourth season in a row where I've written that depressing line.

12 April 2013

Liverpool at Reading 04.13.13

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 10.20.12
1-2 Reading aet (h; FA Cup) 01.13.10
1-1 (a; FA Cup) 01.02.10
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.15.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 West Ham (h); 2-1 Villa (a); 1-3 Southampton (a)
Reading: 0-2 Southampton (a); 1-4 Arsenal (a); 0-1 United (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 22; Gerrard 9; Sturridge 4; Downing, Henderson 3; Agger, Coutinho, Enrique, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Johnson, Şahin 1
Reading: le Fondre 10; Kebe, Pogrebnyak, Robson-Kanu 5; Hunt, Morrison 2; Gorkss, Guthrie, Leigertwood, Mariappa, McCleary 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Downing Suarez Coutinho

Reading, currently propping up the table, will have to come out at play. There will be no Spartan last stand, with James Collins et al tackling everything in sight on the edge of his box. Reading are at home, and probably need to win all of their remaining games to have a chance at staying in the Premier League.

Liverpool's previous match against Reading and Liverpool's last match against a Nigel Adkins-managed side were both narrow 1-0 wins, both at Anfield. But both of those matches took place in the first half of the season (the reverse fixture, the eighth of the league campaign, saw Liverpool's first win at Anfield), before the arrival of Sturridge and Coutinho, before Liverpool's attack coalesced in an almost-capable, if sometimes still misfiring machine.

Rodgers spoke about how Sturridge hasn't been fully fit in the last two matches, left on the bench at Villa and on as a substitute for the ill Downing against West Ham. However, I've a sneaking suspicion that he may start tomorrow. Even though Liverpool are away from home, which was a recipe for disaster when this front four started against Southampton, Liverpool will want to attack tomorrow's opponent at pace, with quick transitions from back to front, hoping to get that early goal which has seen the side coast past a handful of similar opponents. Reading needing all three points rather than a resilient one plays into this strategy.

But as usual, it appears it's one of two options. Either the above, or with Henderson in place of Sturridge. Downing has recovered from illness (and despite his flaws, seems fairly necessary for Liverpool's balance on the flanks), Coutinho has been one of Liverpool's bright spots of late, Lucas and Gerrard will assuredly start in midfield, and the back four has been Johnson, Carragher, Agger, and Enrique in seven of the last eight league matches.

Meanwhile, Reading have lost eight consecutive matches, seven in the league and one in the FA Cup, a streak dating back to February 3. Nigel Adkins' two matches in charge have seen a 1-4 loss at Arsenal and 0-2 loss at Southampton. Adkins has used some variation of 4-5-1 in both matches, more a 4-1-4-1 with Pogrebnyak up front at Arsenal, but a 4-2-3-1 with le Fondre as the lone striker at Southampton.

Like Liverpool's last opponent, Reading are fairly reliant on crossing; only West Ham averages more per game in the league. They aren't as reliant on hopeful punts upfield, but Reading will attack directly, usually via width, putting pressure on Liverpool's fullbacks and wingers, demanding that Agger and Carragher remain capable in the air. There are six Premier League teams who average more than 25 crosses per game: West Ham, Reading, Newcastle, Everton, Arsenal, and United. Liverpool have won just two of the nine matches they've played against those six teams: the reverse fixture against Reading and December's match at West Ham.

Jimmy Kebe, one of those Reading wide players, is doubtful with a groin injury, as is former Everton academy graduate Hope Akpan. I suspect Adkins' XI will look more like the one against Arsenal than Southampton – although maybe that's just my misplaced hope that Liverpool are closer to Arsenal than Southampton – with three central midfielders sitting deeper rather than the slightly more attacking trio of Guthrie-Karacan-Akpan which started last weekend.

However, I do think Le Fondre will start, having scored twice as many goals as Pogrebnyak, but I expect Guthrie to sit deeper than he did against Southampton, partnered with Karacan and Leigertwood in midfield, with Robson-Kanu and McAnuff on the flanks, a back four of Gunter, Morrison, Mariappa, and Kelly, and Federici in goal.

The question, as has also become usual, is "which Liverpool will we get?" Will we get the Liverpool who comprehensively demolished similar opponents over the last four months? Or the Liverpool which broke down in the final third time and time again when facing West Ham and West Brom? Or the Liverpool which conceded an early goal against Villa (at home), Stoke, and Southampton and rarely looked like getting back into the game?

Consistency remains this side's biggest concern. Which isn't a new development. We've seen Liverpool become more resilient and resistant, inch by inch, whether in comebacks against Tottenham and Villa or in not stupidly conceding to West Ham after an inability to make the breakthrough. We've seen evidence that there's a good side taking shape, and that there's clear potential to build on over the last six games.

But we've admittedly not seen it often enough.

08 April 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 0-0 West Ham

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), Reading (h), Everton (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), Wigan (h), Swansea (a), Tottenham (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Aston Villa (h), Fulham (h), Stoke (a), QPR (a), Sunderland (h), Manchester United (a), Norwich (h), Arsenal (a), Manchester City (a), West Brom (h), Swansea (h), Wigan (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a), Aston Villa (a)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

Looks a bit like this, yeah?

I'm sure that's not the first time Allardyce's West Ham have been compared to Pulis' Stoke, and it probably won't be the last.

West Ham took a few more shots than Stoke in its 0-0 draw at Anfield, with the Potters almost wholly reliant on set plays to threaten. At the same time, Liverpool were even less able to put its shots on target in November's 0-0 draw; at least they tested Jaaskelainen yesterday, forcing seven saves and one goal-line clearance from Tomkins. Otherwise, there are more than a few similarities between the two matches.

Mainly, the passing and possession dominance without reward and the overuse of shots from outside the box because an inability to break through a deep and determined defense. Liverpool were similarly wasteful in the final third, 69% accuracy against West Ham and 68% against Stoke.

Liverpool created 15 chances against West Ham, slightly better than its 14 per game average and the 12 created in the home draw with Stoke, but only one was a clear-cut chance.

Aside from Downing, who only featured for 25 minutes, Luis Suarez had the lowest pass accuracy of Liverpool's outfield starters, below his season-long 77% pass accuracy. His shots tally was also slightly subpar, taking five (just two on target), compared to a season average of 5.6. He lost possession 32 times, tied for his high in a single match in the last two seasons. But he also had one of Liverpool's best chances, Jaaskelainen's 27th-minute save after a clever exchange with Coutinho. And, as we've learned before, Liverpool can't rely on Suarez every week, no matter this season's blistering form. I'm still baffled why Suarez remained the lone central striker all match long with Sturridge mainly relegated to the flank as a like-for-like replacement for Downing.

Also like Stoke, West Ham were reliant on long balls and crosses in attack. Which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Liverpool's most frequent pass combination was Lucas to Gerrard; West Ham's was Jaaskelainen to Carlton Cole. 17% of West Ham's passes were long passes compared to 8% for Liverpool. Half of West Brom's chances created – five of ten – came from crosses; overall, West Ham completed six of 15 crosses (compared to Liverpool's two of 21). In defense of Liverpool's defense, they've struggled when Stoke (away) and Aston Villa (home) played in a similar manner, and all those successful crosses led to just one outstanding chance, one shot on target. But it was a chance that West Ham will regret not taking.

Yesterday's statistics also bear a few similarities to Liverpool's 0-2 loss to West Brom. Except in one crucial regard: Liverpool didn't give up a goal – or, subsequently, a second – in the final ten minutes when the opposition attacked. They certainly had the opportunity; if not for Lucas's 86th-minute goal-line clearance, we're ruing yet another undeserved loss rather than just a frustrating draw.

On the whole, Liverpool have smashed weaker teams more often than in better seasons, and vastly more than the last two or three. Norwich home and away, Wigan home and away, QPR away, Sunderland home, Fulham home, Swansea home. That's eight league matches which Liverpool have won by three or more goals. They did that just four times last season: at Wolves, against Everton, at Norwich, and against Chelsea. It took until the penultimate match to score four in a league contest, beating a weakened Chelsea which had just won the FA Cup and were focused on the Champions League final. At this point last season, Liverpool had four 0-0 draws in the league. And six fewer points.

Days like yesterday happen, to every side in every season, and are especially possible when Suarez is off-color. Unfortunately, because of what's gone on earlier in the season, days like yesterday also feel much worse than they should.

07 April 2013

Liverpool 0-0 West Ham

Let's get it out of the way early. Yes, Liverpool's attack was not good enough, but sometimes you can't help feel that there's a referee conspiracy. I'm well aware that's the much-mocked stereotype, but you're not paranoid if they're really out to get you.

Eight Liverpool fouls to just four for West Ham despite Liverpool's overbearing edge in possession, with three of those four West Ham fouls coming in the last 10 minutes. Two more-than-decent penalty shouts ignored – including this carbon copy of the penalty that Suarez won last week – as well as one for Johnson which was actually just outside the box. A "goal" for Sturridge which looked level; if he was offside, it was by millimeters. Every single marginal decision seemed to go against Liverpool today, and not for the first time.

Make no mistake, Liverpool were not good in the final third. And that's putting it nicely. 69.8% accuracy in the final third, too far below the season-long 72.8% average. 21 crosses, with just two successful, despite Liverpool's aerial weakness in attack and West Ham's comparable strength in defending crosses. But had Liverpool gotten "that little bit of luck," whether from the referee or the bounce of the ball, Liverpool could have still eked a narrow win, and all we'd be talking about was a battling three points despite the subpar performance. Narrow margins, but that's been the case for years.

Some of Liverpool's attacking incompetence came from individual disappointments; Suarez was especially frustrating, and despite the team-wide improvement as the season's progressed, it's still "as goes Suarez, so goes Liverpool" all too often.

And some of that incompetence was exacerbated by some of Rodgers' decisions. Downing's 25th minute substitution through illness surprisingly weakened the team. He hadn't done much of note when on the pitch, but his exit disrupted Liverpool's balance, especially because Rodgers decided to use Sturridge mainly as a like-for-like replacement even though Sturridge's best moments have come when playing off the shoulder of the last defender and Suarez was struggling against Collins and Tomkins. And then, needing to make changes in the attempt to force a late breakthrough, Assaidi comes on rather than Suso or Shelvey, a player who hasn't featured in a league match for four and a half months. The sum of his contributions: one off-target shot, three errant crosses, and four completed passes despite receiving possession 11 times. Liverpool were not set up well to penetrate West Ham's deep defense either from the start or after the substitutions.

And some of that incompetence was because West Ham defended very, very well. James Collins was especially impressive, stopping countless attacks by Suarez and Coutinho. West Ham made 47 clearances, the vastly majority inside the 18-yard box. Jaaskelainen made eight saves, including excellent stops on Suarez (twice) and Coutinho. Tomkins cleared a certain Gerrard goal off the line in the 55th minute. Allardyce was content with a point, and Liverpool didn't do enough to stop him from getting that point.

In the interest of fairness, it could have been worse. It could have been 0-2 against West Brom at Anfield, a match very similar to today's except in the final ten minutes and subsequent scoreline. And that's because Liverpool defended well throughout, the few times West Ham threatened. Agger saved a goal with a superlative block in the 32nd minute when West Ham stole possession off Lucas following a goal kick. Lucas saved a goal clearing Collision's header off the line in the 86th – a goal which would have made the game almost exactly like West Brom at Anfield. Despite Carlton Cole winning the majority of his aerial duels, Liverpool made certain that West Ham players rarely won the second ball, while Johnson, Agger, and Lucas led the way with interceptions.

It's only the third 0-0 draw of the season, the first since the trip to Swansea on November 25th. It's the first time Liverpool have drawn a league match at Anfield since November 4th against Newcastle, winning seven and losing two during the stretch.

These matches happen every season to every side, no matter how good or bad. I assume most of you remember a 0-0 against West Ham in December 2008, a match which saw Liverpool booed off the pitch when top of the league. And "it could have been worse" is a phrase we've not heard much this season; if something bad can happen, something bad usually happens. But it's still eminently frustrating when we know Liverpool's capable of better, in almost every regard.

06 April 2013

Liverpool v West Ham 04.07.13

8:30am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
3-2 Liverpool (a) 12.09.12
1-3 West Ham (a) 02.27.11
3-0 Liverpool (h) 11.20.10
3-0 Liverpool (h) 04.19.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Villa (a); 1-3 Southampton (a); 3-2 Tottenham (h)
West Ham: 3-1 West Brom (h); 0-2 Chelsea (a); 1-0 Stoke (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 22; Gerrard 9; Sturridge 4; Downing, Henderson 3; Agger, Coutinho, Enrique, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Johnson, Şahin 1
West Ham: Nolan 6; Carroll 5; Noble 4; C Cole, J Cole, Collison, Diame, Maiga, O'Brien 2; Jarvis, O'Neil, Reid, Taylor, Tomkins, Vaz Te 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Downing Henderson Coutinho

It's the same old question, the only line-up question. Will Liverpool start four out-and-out attackers or three central midfielders?

Liverpool struggled at times at Aston Villa but, on the whole, were more balanced than the side which lost to Southampton. But Sunday's match is at home against a side who hesitates to involve its midfield in attacking buildup (to put it nicely). Could we see a return to the more 4-2-4 system that's led to both highs and lows this season?

Probably not. West Ham's pressing and the all-action Diame in midfield are both arguments against replacing Henderson with another attacker. There's a slight chance Sturridge could come in for Coutinho or Downing, shifting Suarez to the flank, but that also seems less than likely.

As Villa were last week, West Ham will be very direct. As I wrote a few days ago, only Stoke has contested more aerial duels this season; only Norwich, Reading, Stoke, Everton, and West Brom have a higher percentage of headed goals, and no side has conceded fewer headed goals. They attempt the most crosses per game and the sixth-most long balls per game in the league. If Skrtel's confidence isn't completely demolished – and it may well be – Rodgers might bring him back into the side instead of Carragher because of his aerial ability; despite Carlton Cole's burly threat, he matched the striker fairly well in the reverse fixture.

Thankfully, both of West Ham's former Liverpool players won't be on the pitch tomorrow. Carroll's ineligible due to the terms of his loan while Joe Cole's doubtful with a hamstring injury. We all know how I feel about ex-players facing former clubs. Both Mark Noble and Gary McCartney are also injured.

Carlton Cole isn't Andy Carroll, but he still caused Liverpool a few problems when these sides met in December. West Ham will look to get the ball from back to front quickly, spread play wide to Jarvis and Vaz Te or Taylor, and then whip in crosses towards Cole and Nolan. It's a tactic that has punished Liverpool this season.

Otherwise, West Ham's XI is also fairly consistent, and most likely Jaaskelainen; Demel, Collins, Reid, O'Brien; O'Neil, Diame; Vaz Te, Nolan, Jarvis; C Cole.

Precedent isn't with West Ham tomorrow. Allardyce side is averaging 1.67 points per game at home but just 0.73 on the road, and the Hammers have won just one of their last 10 away games. The last time West Ham won at Anfield was in 1963, and Sam Allardyce – whether with Bolton, Newcastle, or Blackburn – hasn't won at Anfield since 2002.

But the last eight months – matches against West Brom, Stoke, Villa, etc. – have proven that precedent doesn't matter much this season. West Ham will pose a difficult test, and – among other things – Liverpool will have to demonstrate the mental consistency that's been lacking all too often. Because if Liverpool turn up thinking that they just had to turn up to take all three points, Liverpool almost certainly won't take all three points.

04 April 2013

Liverpool's Aerial Prowess

There were a couple of comments in the Villa match infographic post which suggested I look at Liverpool's aerial stats. It's a valid concern, given that Liverpool have often struggled against aerially dominant strikers, whether Benteke, Carlton Cole, Jon Walters, or Olivier Giroud, seemingly more susceptible to crosses and set plays.

Let's start with headed goals scored and conceded.

Through 31 matches, eight of the 40 goals (20%) Liverpool have conceded were via headers: 0-3 West Brom (a), 0-1 Chelsea (a), 1-2 Stoke (a), 0-2 United (a), 2-1 Arsenal (a), 0-1 West Brom (h),1-1 Spurs (h), and 1-2 Spurs (h). Five of those eight (62.5%) came from set plays: at Chelsea, at Stoke, at Arsenal, against West Brom, and the second against Spurs.

Last season, 10 of the 40 goals Liverpool conceded came from headers (25%), and six of those ten (60%) were from set plays. So, not much difference. Except that Liverpool have already conceded the same number of goals through 31 matches as they did through all of last season, but I think that's a slightly different discussion.

Conceding 20% of its goals via headers puts Liverpool just above the league average – which is 19.6%. Eight teams have conceded a larger percentage of goals via headers: United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Everton, Swansea, Stoke, Newcastle, and Wigan. However, only Newcastle and Wigan have conceded more goals in total than Liverpool in that group.

At the other end of the pitch, Liverpool scored eight headed goals out of 47 in total last season. This season, Liverpool have scored seven headed goals of 59 in total. Skrtel against City, Suarez at Everton, Suarez at Chelsea, Agger against Southampton, Gerrard against Villa, Agger at QPR, Downing at Wigan. Only Gerrard and Downing's were from open play.

Unsurprisingly, this puts Liverpool near the bottom of the league for headed goals scored.

Only Sunderland and City have a smaller percentage of headed goals. But Rodgers' side isn't built around players who score headed goals, which is why Carroll's currently plying his trade at West Ham.

As for aerial duels, Liverpool have won 414 of 784 attempted this season. Liverpool have won more aerial duels than the opposition in 22 of the 31 league matches; Liverpool's record when winning more aerial duels than its opponent is 10W-7D-5L (1.68 ppg) and 3W-2D-3L (1.22 ppg) when they don't.

The player-by-player breakdown:

Not included: Şahin (12/23), Reina (5/5), Jones (1/1), Suso (1/2), Assaidi (0/1), Cole (2/5), Carroll (2/2).

Liverpool's forwards obviously don't contest many aerial duels, which is also evident in the headed goals total. None of them are very good at it, and it's not the way Rodgers' teams play. Last season was different. Carroll won 152 of 236 (64.4%), Kuyt won 32 of 86 (37.2%). Incidentally, Carroll's currently leading the league in aerial duels won per match, with 10.2 (174 of 266; 65.4%). This seems like a good time to again remind that Liverpool only scored 47 goals in total last season.

At the same time, opposition teams seem to be playing a lot more aerial passes against Liverpool this season. Skrtel featured in far more matches last season, but only contested 97 aerial duels (winning 78; 80.4% successful). Agger won 44 of 69, Carragher 14 of 23, Johnson 19 of 31, Enrique 9 of 16. Only Carragher's total for this season is below last season's, which makes sense as he's started half the number of matches as last season. Every other regular defender has attempted more aerial duels this season. And every regular defender had a higher successful percentage last season.

But the midfield's total, especially Lucas', stood out to me. Maybe it's just because the match at Aston Villa is fresh in the memory, where he committed five fouls in the first half, struggling with the long balls played to Benteke when the striker dropped off the center-backs.

So I thought it might be helpful to compare him to other out-and-out defensive midfielders in the league, with some suggestions taken via Twitter yesterday.

The best defensive midfielders, at least in this regard, have a better success rate than Lucas, who only wins 50% of his aerial duels. This is admittedly worrisome. But not many beat Lucas for volume.

Going by WhoScored's statistics and position classifications, very few central midfielders have won more aerial duels per game than Lucas: Fellaini (who barely counts for this comparison because of the way Everton use him in attack), Javi Garcia, Bradley Johnson, Leon Osman, Gareth Barry, and Stephane Mbia. And that's about it.

This is one area where Liverpool could improve over the summer. Even if Henderson and Allen are "better" backups for Lucas than Liverpool had last season (*glares at Spearing and Adam*), both are even worse defending against headers.

A similar comparison for other center-backs compared to Skrtel and Agger:

It's safe to assume that an aerially dominant center-back tops Liverpool's priorities for this summer's spending. Skrtel's become out of favor, as has Coates, and Carragher's retiring. Even if Rodgers sees both Wisdom and Kelly as future center-backs, he'll need one or two, if not three, more central defenders.

But neither Agger nor Skrtel are that far behind comparable defenders. Even considering this season's woes and his regression from last season, Skrtel remains near the top in aerial duel success rate, while Agger is better than the likes of Vertonghen, Kompany, Ashley Williams, and others.

If you're curious, here are the league-wide team stats, listed in order of current league position.

It's no surprise to see Stoke lead the division, by some distance. Nor is it a surprise to see Roberto Martinez's Wigan at the bottom. Liverpool are close to the bottom in volume, but above the league average in success rate (the league-wide average is obviously 50%).

There is room for improvement at both ends of the pitch. Liverpool's attack under Brendan Rodgers will never live and die by its headers, but Liverpool also might not be as bad in the air as we're led to believe, and should improve in defense as both Wisdom and Kelly mature (and the latter returns from injury).

All stats via Squawka, WhoScored, or StatsZone.

01 April 2013

Visualized: Liverpool 2-1 Aston Villa

Previous Match Infographics: Manchester City (h), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), Reading (h), Everton (a), Newcastle (h), Chelsea (a), Wigan (h), Swansea (a), Tottenham (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Aston Villa (h), Fulham (h), Stoke (a), QPR (a), Sunderland (h), Manchester United (a), Norwich (h), Arsenal (a), Manchester City (a), West Brom (h), Swansea (h), Wigan (a), Tottenham (h), Southampton (a)

As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.

This graphic makes for interesting comparison to the reverse fixture.

Villa attempted and completed more than twice as many passes as they did three months ago, 79% accuracy yesterday compared to 69% accuracy. They had had 46.5% possession compared to 27.9% in the match at Anfield. And they made 39 interceptions – by far, the most by a Liverpool opponent this season, more than double the opposition average prior to yesterday – compared to just 14 in the last meeting.

But Villa took fewer shots yesterday – 10 to December's 11 – with only four on target compared to six in the last meeting. At Anfield, they created eight chances. Yesterday, they created seven.

There were four changes to Liverpool's XI from the last meeting: Henderson for Allen, Coutinho for Shelvey, Enrique for Sterling (Downing was at left-back), and Carragher for Skrtel. Henderson scored the crucial equalizer (and had a team-high six interceptions), Coutinho provided the crucial assist, Enrique won possession 12 times, and Carragher, along with Agger, held Benteke to half as many successful aerial duels as in December – Benteke only won 5 of 10 compared to 10 of 17 at Anfield. Agger was 6/7 on aeriel duels, Carragher was 3/3; three months ago, Skrtel was 4/8 and Agger was 2/5.

The first half seemed all too familiar. Liverpool struggled to make the breakthrough; Villa looked dangerous every time they countered, prevented an opener by a brilliant Reina save but scoring soon after. Liverpool were impatient in attack: eight of the 15 first half shots were blocked, six came from outside the box, hoping for a goal more than working for a goal.

But the second half was a different story. A brilliant move to dice through Villa's defense before it could set up, highlighted by two unerring long passes and Henderson's storming run and finish. Two outstanding chances, better than almost anything created in the first 45 minutes, narrowly off target by Coutinho and Johnson before Suarez won the penalty for Liverpool's second. Liverpool pressed higher up the pitch, unsettling's Villa's back line – who were crucial in starting attacks; as usual, Villa often ignored its midfield. 12 of Liverpool's 17 successful tackles came in the second half, including three of Lucas's five, two of Agger's three, and both of Gerrard's. Lucas committed five fouls in the first half, but just one in the second half. For the first 70 minutes, Villa took nine shots: five on target, three off, and one blocked. But in the last 20 minutes, with Liverpool protecting its narrow lead, Villa took just one: a 75th minute N'Zogbia effort from nearly 30 yards out.